Hosts for Hospitals Brings Patients Home
Shirley Law was not going to let her husband face cancer alone.
Scheduled last May for a complicated operation to remove his pancreas, George Law would have to leave the couple's home in Susquehanna, Pa., to spend at least two weeks at Fox Chase Cancer Center. Shirley was not up for driving four hours each way to visit him daily, but she had nowhere to stay during George's hospitalization.
"Hotels were way too expensive," Shirley says. "There's no chance I could have paid for that long of a visit."
She didn't have to.
Thanks to Hosts for Hospitals (HfH), a nonprofit organization that matches volunteer hosts with patients who travel to Philadelphia for specialized medical care as well as the family members who accompany them for support, Shirley was able to sit beside her husband throughout his entire recovery from surgery.
"More people need to know about this program," she says. "They are just so wonderful."
"They" are Mike Aichenbaum and Barbara Weisman, HfH's two full-time staffers. Weisman has been onboard as outreach coordinator for less than a year, while Aichenbaum founded the organization in 2000 after winning a long - and costly - battle with leukemia. He has served as executive director ever since (co-founder Nancy Wimmer is now a board member).
After his diagnosis at age 33, Aichenbaum was treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. His mother, wife and two young sons accompanied him throughout chemotherapy treatments and a subsequent bone-marrow transplant. Their apartment across from the hospital set the family back more than $20,000.
"At a time when I wondered whether my life really mattered, having my family there providing love was important beyond words," Aichenbaum says. Not wanting others in his situation to face the same expenses, Aichenbaum created Hosts for Hospitals more than 10 years after his recovery, modeling it after Boston's Hospitality Program, which also provides low-cost lodging to hospital families.
Fox Chase's partnership with HfH has been a blessing, as there is an urgent need for patient hospitality in and around Philadelphia. The Center has seven units available in its Coventry House apartment complex, but those remain full year-round and cannot accommodate all those who request a room.
Fox Chase housing and transportation coordinator Ellen Herrmann's job is made a little easier by HfH. "There are no hotels in our immediate area," Herrmann explains, "so the service Hosts for Hospitals provides is essential."
Here's how it works. When patients receiving medical care at a facility in the Greater Philadelphia area live so far away that commuting is a burden but there is no need for them to stay overnight in the hospital, they can seek lodging through HfH - and so can the relatives who want to hold their loved one's hand through treatment. Aichenbaum and Weisman communicate with hospitals throughout the region to make their services known. They also promote HfH to area clergy and spiritual leaders.
"We reach out to people who are often approached by others for comfort," Weisman says.
Other people they reach out to are potential hosts - volunteers to welcome complete strangers with open arms. Weisman and Aichenbaum pair guests with the hosts who are most suitable for their particular situation.
"Our hosts are ordinary people in all walks of life," Aichenbaum says. "But at the same time, they are extraordinary in that they are willing to share their homes with people in need."
Dina and Brad Baker are two of those extraordinary people. The Wyncote residents first learned about HfH in a bulletin put out by their synagogue. They have hosted 11 patients and relatives of patients over the past five years, sometimes for as long as three months at a time. Four of their guests have been Fox Chase patients. As do most volunteers, Dina Baker says she gets more out of her HfH affiliation than her guests do.
"There are all these unexpected pluses ... the beautiful thank-you notes we've received, the incredible impact on our children and the new insights and experiences the guests bring," says Baker, whose guests have come from various parts of the eastern United States as well as China and Siberia. Baker credits Aichenbaum's gentle personality with the program's widespread influence.
"Mike's great strength is his ability to empathize with the patients and their families, having been in a similar situation himself," Baker says. "He puts them very much at ease and concentrates all his efforts on serving their needs."
Aichenbaum's hard work combined with the dire need for outpatient hospitality in the Philadelphia area has made HfH a valuable commodity. From July 1, 2000, to August 31 of this year, 170 host families have provided 600 patients and their families a combined total of 17,800 nights of lodging. Aichenbaum estimates that guest families have saved $1,130,000 in equivalent hotel expenses. So far, HfH has placed referrals from all 50 states in the U.S. as well as 44 other countries worldwide.
Guests placed through HfH often establish long-lasting friendships with their hosts and return for repeat visits. Andrea Fuller, one of HfH's earliest referrals, was first welcomed by hosts Jim Thacker and Maurine Doggett in 2000 but continues to stay at their Elkins Park home during her frequent returns to Fox Chase.
Diagnosed with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor in December 1999, Fuller was given four to six months to live. After surviving for nearly a year, she was accepted into a clinical trial at Fox Chase and has lost count of how many times she has traveled from her home in Florida to receive treatment. She stayed with Thacker and Doggett monthly for two years and since then has returned to their home every three months.
Fuller, who initially saw no signs of illness except for a lump in her stomach, was floored by her diagnosis.
"It was one of those moments one never forgets," she says. "It was like living in slow motion ... I was too busy to be this ill, terminally and immediately." When she made plans to join a study at Fox Chase, Fuller had no idea where she would stay or how she would afford it. Then she heard about HfH and was matched with Thacker and Doggett.
"Luck of the draw," Fuller says about being paired with her "special angels," as she calls her hosts. "When I was confronted with obstacle after obstacle, answers were presented on the spot."
HfH and its volunteers are instrumental in the positive changes experienced by patients at Fox Chase and other area hospitals. Without this successful service, patients in need might have to sacrifice their families' support or spend thousands of dollars just to be with a loved one during treatment. Thacker, a former Fox Chase staff member and current information desk volunteer, points out that a home environment also provides comfort to many guests.
"It's just better for people to stay with a family instead of in some cold hotel," he says.
With an ever-increasing number of referrals, Mike Aichenbaum and Barbara Weisman are seeking new volunteers to help meet a growing demand for lodging. Weisman says most volunteers have some connection, however vague or strong, to someone who has hosted before and that word of mouth brings many new hosts forward.
"When people hear what we're all about, they want to commit, " she says. "We elicit an emotional response. So many people have been touched by illness in some way at some point in their lives, and memories of their own struggles prompt them to get involved."
HfH volunteers come from all walks of life, but Aichenbaum says they share common traits of generosity, sensitivity and humility.
"These are ordinary people helping ordinary people," he says. "This is the way the world is supposed to be."
Fox Chase Cancer Center, part of the Temple University Health System, is one of the leading cancer research and treatment centers in the United States. Founded in 1904 in Philadelphia as one of the nation’s first cancer hospitals, Fox Chase was also among the first institutions to be designated a National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Cancer Center in 1974. Fox Chase researchers have won the highest awards in their fields, including two Nobel Prizes. Fox Chase physicians are also routinely recognized in national rankings, and the Center’s nursing program has received the Magnet recognition for excellence four consecutive times. Today, Fox Chase conducts a broad array of nationally competitive basic, translational, and clinical research, with special programs in cancer prevention, detection, survivorship, and community outreach. For more information, call 1-888-FOX CHASE or (1-888-369-2427).
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